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Two election conferences in two weeks was quite heavy even for an election junkie like me.

In the middle of September (2011) I was invited by a friend who was UNDP Manila’s Democratic Governance Team Leader  Boyie Buendia, to participate in the Asian Regional Community of Practice Meeting on Electoral Cycle Support at the Hyatt Hotel in Ermita, Manila. It was held last September 26-28, 2011. I was also asked to do the presentation on Reforming Political Party in the Philippines. It was an international conference as it was attended by UNDP officials from all over Asia, by Election Management Bodies (EMBs) from the region, as well as by civil society groups. The chosen subject matters in the conference were those that concern substantive electoral issues, rather than the usual procedural election issues of registration, voting and counting processes. The topics were on electoral violence, gender and IP inclusiveness, political party reform, and the other broader electoral reform issues. The discussions and arguments were passionate and articulate. Enough exchanges were thrown on the floor to enable the participants to situate their own practical experiences with that of the others.

It was more than an eventful conference. Typhoon Pedring provided an side exciting show, more than did Joey Ayala’s usual activism blended and humor-filled entertainment the night of the 26th. Pedring flooded the surrounding streets. The foreign participants were provided with a spectacle, through the hotel’s glass walls, of the waves of Manila Bay pounding Roxas Boulevard’s sea walls. While the foreigners were wasting no time capturing what could be a once in a lifetime first hand encounter with a strong tropical cyclone, we Filipinos, particularly myself, were dumbfounded at the never before seen wrath of nature.

Anyway, the conference went on, with candles and all; with guests not having had decent shower because water in the five star hotel was scarce. To save on power, breakout group presentations were made plenary presentations. My own presentation on Political Party, designed to provoke a small break out group, was presented before everyone (without the intended impact, unfortunately)

The conference was capped by the appearance of Vice President Jojo Binay, who surprisingly showed his familiarity with development lingo in presenting his own thoughts on political and electoral reform. I was glad that the other speaker, Secretary Ronald Llamas (Political Affairs) mentioned one of my pet electoral reform, campaign finance reform, as one of the reforms the administration are looking at. Other speakers who impressed my a lot were Filipinos: Cookie Diokno, who spoke about Human Rights Approach to Electoral Reforms, Zenaida Pawid on Indigenous Peoples participation in mainstream political processes, Chair Etta Rosales, as well as the many other gender participation advocates from the different countries. I am glad I also had interesting informal table discussions with Noel Medina, Ferdie Rafanan, Debbie Garcia, etc.

The second conference was on strengthening the credibility of ASEAN EMBs held at Jakarta, Indonesia on October 3 to 5 at the grand Hotel Borobudur. I was initially recommended (separately) to be invited by PPCRV’s Ambassador Tita De Villa and NAMFREL’s Eric Alvia as early as the last week of August of 2011. However, I did not get my invitation until the UNDP conference when I saw International IDEA’s Adhy Aman, who asked me if I was going to the Jakarta conference. I told him I haven’t gotten my invitation to participate yet, and at that late stage I thought I was not going. Adhy however, made sure that I was invited and I was even asked to make a presentation in one of the breakout groups, particularly to discuss Election Dispute Resolution Mechanism in the Philippines (my other pet electoral reform issue). The conference was organized by the KPU (Election Commission) of Indonesia and by International IDEA.

My presentation was set within the backdrop of two complimentary frameworks of looking at election disputes in general. One was the concept of Electoral Justice developed by International IDEA and the other was the Seven International Standards of a sound EDR system developed by a panel of experts and compiled by IFES. Adhy Aman presented Electoral Justice; Beverly Thakur of IFES Philippines presented the IFES’s seven standards.  Mine was to situate the theories to Philippine practice and to hopefully generate an illustration that could be of use to other countries in the region (I hope to blog about my Jakarta presentation later)

One of the more interesting topics was the one on the use of election technology. Commissioner Augusto “Gus” Lagman made the presentation of the Philippine experience, which made the other Filipino participants a bit edgy, as he was, prior to being commissioner, an ardent critic of the Precinct Count Optical Scan or PCOS system adopted in the last 2010 Philippine election. They thought that rather than highlight the benefits of the PCOS, he would give a bad name to it. But lo and behold, Gus Lagman’s presentation was fair and academic, and in fact useful in terms of presenting to other countries the need to exercise the necessary prudence rather than jump right away in adopting automated election system.

In any case, the conference was an opportunity to meet and have a reunion with the other electoral reforms advocates in the region. Colleagues from ANFREL were there; Koul Panha, a Ramon Magsaysay  awardee from CONFREL of Cambodia was also there. Acquaintances from the electoral bodies of Indonesia, Thailand and Timor Leste were also in attendance.  The sweet and simple but elegant commissioner (and former Chair) of the US Federal Election Commission Ellen Weintraub was in attendance as well, and who was my seat mate in many of the sessions.

The highlight  of the conference was of course the opening ceremony at the Indonesian Presidential Palace where no less than President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declaring the conference open. All the participants had their chance to personally shake the hands of President SBY. The opening ceremony was capped by a light snack at the palace.

The cultural night organized by the KPU at their office was also unforgettable. The KPU officials were all dressed in traditional Indonesian evening attires. The buffet table was full of delectable authentic Indonesian food.

The Filipino contingent was the biggest and the individual members have of course made their marks in the various conference sessions they attended. The heads of the delegation were Commissioners Rene Sarmiento and Gus Lagman. Other members of the Filipino team were Ambassador Tita De Villa, former Commissioner Goyo Larrazabal (both of PPCRV), Eric Alvia of Namfrel, Ramon Casiple of IPER, and Atty. Erwin Caliba of COMELEC.

It was fruitful and productive conference, with the participating officials and CSOs being able to share their experiences,  and learned from the experiences of the others. Reiterated is the fact that as neighbors, ASEAN countries have a lot of things in common and that shared experiences can mutually benefit everyone. It was a unanimous consensus that a similar activity should be undertaken in the future, perhaps with more specific issues to highlight.